A visit to Woodwalton Fen is like entering a lost world. The reserve is one of only four remaining fragments of the ancient wild fens that once stretched for 1,350 square miles across the area and is a last haven for many rare fen species.
By the end of the 19th century, more than 99% of the wild fens had disappeared due to drainage of the fens for agriculture. Without intervention, the last precious fragments of natural fenland would have disappeared under the plough.
Fortunately for Woodwalton Fen, and for many wild spaces across the country, there was a man with sufficient vision, authority and wealth who was willing to fight for their preservation - the Honourable Nathaniel Charles Rothschild.
Charles Rothschild has been described as the ‘father of modern conservation’. Both a successful banker and entomologist, he became very concerned with the rapid disappearance of British wildlife and habitats as a result of industrialisation. He saw that in order to protect wildlife species and their habitats, nature reserves would need to be established.
Rothschild bought part of Wicken Fen in 1899, creating Britain’s first nature reserve. He gave this reserve to the National Trust, who still manage the reserve to this day.
In 1910 he bought Woodwalton Fen intending to donate this site to the National Trust too, but the Trust was reluctant to take on a second nature reserve when the upkeep of Wicken Fen was proving costly. For a while, Rothschild kept Woodwalton as his own personal nature reserve.
Probably Rothschild's most important contribution to nature conservation was when in 1912 he formed the first society in Britain concerned with protecting wildlife habitats - the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves for Britain and the Empire (SPNR), now the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. He donated Woodwalton Fen to the society in 1919 and The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts still own the reserve today. The society now manages 2,300 nature reserves across the UK, with the support of more than 800,000 members – a testament to the legacy of Charles Rothschild.
Building on the work done by Rothschild and his colleagues, Natural England (previously the Nature Conservancy Council, then English Nature), the government’s advisor on nature conservation, designated the first National Nature Reserves in 1953. These are some of the best sites in the country for wildlife and geology.
Nearby Holme Fen was in the original list and In 1954 Woodwalton Fen was also designated as a National Nature Reserve. Since then, on a 100 year lease, Natural England has been caring for and managing the nature reserve.
The work of digging ditches and caring for the nature reserve was once done by hand with scythes and spades. Cattle still help to manage the nature reserve today, but these days reeds are cut, meadows mown, and miles of ditches kept clear using modern machinery.
You can find out more about how four generations of the same family have cared for Woodwalton Fen over the last century. Please see the Fen Stories and Memories page.
In 1910, on the site of an old farmstead and at the heart of the new nature reserve, Charles Rothschild built a bungalow on stilts and used it as a base for his field trips out on the fen. His activities included moth trapping at night and local people were not quite sure what to make of the visitors from London who went out into the fen at night with lanterns.
You can still see the Rothschild Bungalow today. See the Visit Woodwalton Fen section.
The Bungalow is opened for special events and visits. See the Events Programme or contact the Great Fen team to find out more.
Charles Rothschild’s daughter, Miriam (1908-2005), served on the Woodwalton Fen Advisory Committee for many years and remembered happy times at Woodwalton Fen in her youth:
"My father bought Woodwalton Fen for its natural beauty and natural life.
"I remember the Fen from when I was a child, when the rushes were right over my head. It was truly wild; it took you back hundreds of years. I always remember the sound of wood pigeons coming in to roost, the sound of their wings."
There are more memories from Miriam Rothschild in the Memories Album ‘100 Years of Woodwalton Fen‘. Please see the Fen Stories and Memories page.
Even though Woodwalton Fen has an abundance of plants and animals, it is not a perfect example of the ancient wild fens because the natural resources within Woodwalton Fen were exploited before and after it became a nature reserve. Reeds were harvested and some of the land was farmed.
More importantly, much of the top layer of peat soil was dug for fuel. This top layer is more acidic than the peat below and supports different plants. Where acid peat remains, plants like Great Fen-Sedge and Bog Myrtle can be found, but these areas are restricted to small patches throughout the reserve. More of the acid peat was preserved at Holme Fen.
You can find out more about how the peat was used in the nearby Victorian brickworks in the history of the Wildlife Trust Countryside Centre.
The fens – including Woodwalton Fen and surrounding farmland - have always been prone to flooding, being flat and low-lying.
In the 1960’s work began to make Woodwalton Fen into a flood protection area, where water could be diverted from the rivers and dykes at times of heavy rainfall. A clay bank was built around the reserve with clay being dug out from the reserve itself - resulting in the creation of Rothschild’s Mere. While this helps to keep the reserve wetter, flood water does not always come at the right time of year for the wildlife. It also contains phosphates and nitrates which can interfere with the precious ecosystem of Woodwalton Fen.
However, Woodwalton Fen alone is not big enough to cope with the anticipated floods of the future as the climate changes. For example, in 1998 the reserve could not hold any more water. Andy Mason, then the Reserve Warden said:
"We were at capacity during the 1998 floods. If we’d had the Great Fen then, we could have flooded part of the Great Fen to alleviate the flood on the surrounding farmland and on Woodwalton Fen.”
The Great Fen will provide new flood protection areas for the future, to protect both Woodwalton Fen and local farmland.